Journalist Fernando Rodrigues says Brazil's new information access law is a leap toward a culture of transparency (Interview)

With President Dilma Rousseff's signature on Friday, Nov. 18, Brazil became the 89th country in the world to approve a freedom of information law, reported the Forum of Public Information Access. The law, which guarantees public access to government data and documents as well as private entities that receive public funding, will take effect in six months.

The law's final language was approved by the Senate in October. According to the website Terra, President Rousseff only vetoed two amendments. Two sections were removed from Article 19, whereby denial to access of information related to human rights should be handled by the Public Ministry and information "relating to accounting, financial, budgetary, and property" should be handled by the courts; and another from Article 35, which establishes the Joint Commission on the Reevaluation of Information.

During the bill's long journey to approval, it had a loyal ally in Brazilian journalist Fernando Rodrigues. Along with the Brazilian Association of Investigative Journalism and the Forum for the Right to Access Public Information, Rodrigues was one of the principal advocates behind the constitutional right to access information.

Rodrigues spoke with the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas about the new law and the next steps toward a new culture of governmental transparency and access.

Knight Center: You were one of the principle organizers behind the campaign in favor of the sunshine law in Brazil. What was the greatest challenge along the way?

Fernando Rodrigues: The greatest challenge was confronting the culture a culture of secrecy and little transparency. It was difficult to convince the authorities and even civil society that it was necessary for Brazil to adopt clear laws to facilitate access to public information. This was an evangelizing project that owes much to various organizations, a few of which include the Brazilian Association of Investigative Journalism (Abraji), the Brazilian Order of Lawyers, the National Association of Newspapers, the NGO Contas Abertas, and Transparency Brazil. The process was slow and difficult to create a new culture of transparency within society but we succeeded.

KC: What are the next steps?

FR: The law by itself doesn't solve anything. Now starts the more difficult stage of bringing the law into practice. We have to see how the government is going to treat the new law and over the next six months civil society needs to make its demands heard. The law needs to detail what information is released with a request, government organizations need to start making their information available to the public, etc. All of this needs to be flushed out. It's essential that associations from various sectors of society organize and encourage the public to make public information requests. The law will only be tested and refined when Brazilian citizens make requests. Another very important step is training government employees across the government, from municipal, state and federal levels, so they know how to treat information and make it available to the public. This is a difficult task that will not be accomplished soon. It's going to involve changing the mindset of thousands of public servants.

KC: What impact will the law have on journalists' daily practices?

FR: This law is a blessing for Brazilian journalists and will be a boon when someone is investigating a story that involves the government. Many journalists aren't familiar with the law's language and newsrooms will have to hurry and offer training courses. Abraji already has several courses available on the topic.

KC: Gregory Michener, an expert on sunshine laws in Latin America, told the Knight Center in an interview that paying for the infrastructure to make this law effective would be expensive. Do you think this cost would impede compliance with the law in Brazil, especially in lower levels of government?

FR: No one knows that exact cost of the law but will certainly cost something and should be taken into considerations in the next budgets for all levels of government. Comptroller General of the Union, Jorge Hage, has said that next year's budgets will be altered to meet the specific costs of the sunshine law. And this isn't just for the federal government but in 5,600 cities and 27 states. Statements about the unpreparedness of government budgets are very general and this will be one of the early hurdles in the law's application. It will be up to civil society to participate in their new right to guarantee that state budgets set aside enough money to effectively apply the law.

KC: Some experts warn about gaps in the law at the state and municipal levels, including a lack mechanisms to appeal a decision, among other problems. How do you think the law will play out?

FR: Let me make a caveat at the outset. Brazil's sunshine law is one of the most far reaching on Earth. If it's going to succeed or not we'll have to see later, if the society demands and the state complies. But it's strange, for a country the size of Brazil, to have such a progressive law operating at all levels of the government. That being said, we find ourselves with the old story of whether the glass is half full or half empty. Those who see the glass half empty are going to say that the law won't be applied at the municipal level, that the law doesn't detail how individuals would appeal a denial of information, that Brazil has too many cities with limited resources and won't have the budgets to comply with the law. Those who see the glass half full will remember that the law is federal and that any citizens, with some effort, can make requests from information in any small city in the interior of the country and have the law on their side, something that is not possible in most countries. It's a good thing that's happening. The law's not perfect; no perfect law exists. There's never been unanimity behind a law. The big take away is that civil society was able to achieve a law with unprecedented scope, including even private businesses involved in public-private partnerships. You don't see this in other places. It's going to be difficult for the culture of transparency to establish itself in the 5,600 municipalities and it's difficult to image that 5,600 mayors and city councils are suddenly going to be paragons of transparency. But the law exists and citizens can make demands on their representatives. So, the positive is much greater than the negative. It's clear that no one should be so naive to think that tomorrow everything's going to be different but the law is a powerful democratic tool to help shift the culture towards greater transparency.

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